Cyanobacteria bloom. The water is green with algae.

Protecting Our Health As Our Climate Changes

The increasing occurrence of Lyme disease, more frequent cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms, and the devastation from Tropical Storm Irene are just a few examples of how climate change is affecting Vermonters’ health.

Everyone’s health is affected by climate change, though certain people and places are more vulnerable than others, including people who spend a lot of time outdoors, people living in high risk locations like floodplains, people with pre-existing health sensitivities, and people with limited financial or social resources for reducing their risks.  Learn more about how we are protecting public health as climate changes!

On this page:

Why It Matters

 

Tackling the Health Risks

We don’t always think about climate change as posing risks for Vermonters’ health, but there are some real and growing risks that we need to understand and manage.  

  • Summer heat can cause sickness and death. On days when temperatures reach the mid-to-upper 80’s, emergency room visits for heat-related complaints are eight times more likely.
     
  • There were 50% more federally-declared weather-related disasters in the past ten years compared to the previous ten. Tropical Storm Irene resulted in six deaths, drinking water contamination, mold growth in buildings, and millions of dollars in economic damages.
     
  • Warmer conditions have contributed to increased black-legged (deer) tick populations and lengthened their active season. In 2015, Vermont had the highest number of Lyme disease cases per capita in the U.S.
     
  • Cyanobacteria bloomHeavy rains can send contaminated runoff into drinking and recreational waters. Vermont averaged 500+ reported cases of water or foodborne illness from 2005-2014, with more cases reported after heavy rains.
     
  • Warm water and runoff from heavy rains can fuel cyanobacteria blooms (blue-green algae) in lakes and ponds, especially on calm, sunny, late summer days in nutrient-rich bays. Blooms can cause skin irritation and can release toxins that cause allergic reactions or flu-like symptoms if swallowed.
     
  • A longer growing season and more carbon dioxide in the air increases pollen, which can cause seasonal allergies and asthma attacks. 11% of adults in Vermont report having asthma and 8% suffer from hay fever.

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How the State is Helping Vermont BRACE for Climate Change

Supported by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Vermont Department of Health launched a new  Climate and Health Program to better understand and address the health risks posed by climate change.

BRACE graphic showing five components of the modelCore to the effort is the use of CDC’s steps for Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE):

  • Identify climate-related health risks in Vermont.
  • Estimate the current and future impact of these risks.
  • Identify populations and locations at greatest risk.
  • Implement actions to prevent or minimize these risks.

Here’s what Vermont has learned by taking a close look at the health risks from a changing climate in Vermont, and what we can do about them.

Heat

Since 2000, Vermont has had an average of seven hot days per year when the temperature reached 87°F or hotter. Climate models predict 15 to 20 hot days per year by mid-century, and 20 to 34 hot days per year by the end of the century. The Health Department is working with state agencies, emergency responders, and local service organizations to better identify people and places most at risk and prepare for a coordinated response when the inevitable heat waves come.

Safe Water

The Health Department partners with other state agencies, environmental organizations, recreational site managers, town health officers, drinking water system operators, and hundreds of volunteers to monitor cyanobacteria blooms each summer and test affected waters for toxins.

Depictions of the blacklegged tickUnderstanding Disease Risks

The Agency of Agriculture, Health Department, and researchers at Vermont colleges and universities are working around the state to collect ticks and mosquitoes and test them for a wide variety of diseases. This information helps us to better warn people about the risks, what you can do to avoid bites, and what to do if you have been bit.

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What You Can Do
 

  • Take actions to lower your carbon footprint. Many ALSO improve your health, such as walking or biking instead of driving for short trips.
  • Check-in on family, friends, and neighbors during hot days, extreme weather events, and poor air quality days, especially when those that may be more vulnerable.
  • Make an emergency plan and an emergency supply kit. This is one of the best things you can do to prepare for storms and flooding.  Learn how to stay safe after a flood or during a power outage.
  • Stay out of lakes, ponds, and streams for 48 hours after heavy rains because runoff could contaminate waterways. Recent heavy rains can also make streams fast and dangerous for swimming.
  • Learn how to identify cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and see where blooms have been reported on the Cyanobacteria Tracker.
  • Avoid tick and mosquito bites by covering exposed skin and using EPA-registered repellents, and check your body for ticks at least once on days after being in grassy or wooded areas.
  • Watch air quality forecasts and reduce outdoor activity on days when pollen, ozone, or particulate matter levels are high.
  • On hot days, drink extra fluids (non-caffeinated), avoid strenuous outdoor activities, and stay in cool, shady places. Never leave pets, children, or elderly individuals inside a parked vehicle!